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10th Sunday after Trinity

04 August 2023

13 August, Proper 14: 1 Kings 19.9-18; Psalm 85.8-13; Romans 10.5-15; Matthew 14.22-33

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ONE day I am in church, singing, “Take my feet and let them be Swift and beautiful for thee.” The next day, I read Paul quoting Isaiah, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Feet are rarely anyone’s best feature. Most of the year, we hide them from view, neglecting them unless they become too painful to ignore. But, on Good Friday, we kiss the feet of Christ crucified as a token of our love. In this way, we show that, although we cannot equal his abasement, we are willing to imitate it. By kneeling and kissing his feet, we realise our participation in his sacrifice. That is one reason to take feet seriously.

The enemy of wholeness, of body and mind alike, is compartmentalisation. It can be a line of emotional defence. If trauma threatens to overwhelm us, we lock it away in our mind until we feel ready to tackle it. But we are not jigsaw-puzzle selves; not isolated elements clicking together to form a flat image that looks complete but lacks structural integrity. We are three-dimensional, embodied: each element of us enmeshed with all the rest; each part of us capable of standing for us-as-a-whole (1 Corinthians 12.14-26). Thus, every bit of us has the capacity to image the whole of us as made in the divine likeness.

I have pinched a grammatical term to challenge the compartmentalisation, or fragmentation, or dis-integration of the self: “synecdoche”. It means “understanding one thing with another”. Calling a car a “motor”, or “wheels”, is synecdoche. Paul’s referring to “flesh and blood”, when he means human beings (Ephesians 6.12), is synecdoche, too.

In Romans 10.15, beautiful feet are a synecdoche, encapsulating messengers in all their eager haste. Or we could think of God’s “hand”, a synecdoche for his mighty power; for we find it easier to understand something that is concrete rather than abstract.

Hands stand for power, and feet for haste. God’s “name” is yet another synecdoche. It stands for God’s own being: that appellation by which he is uniquely known encapsulates his nature, his person. We often say that knowing a name gives us power over the one named (I have said so before, here). But we can also find that the name encapsulates the unbroken wholeness of another being: not click-together pieces, but the integrated self.

Jesus’s feet do what ours do. They walk. But, in this Gospel, they transfigure the ordinary laws of nature, by walking on the sea. If they are a synecdoche here — giving us, in one part of the self, an idea of the whole — they are telling us that, when we are suffused with grace as he was, we, too, shall transcend our mortal limitations. Indeed, Peter proves as much; for, when he asks to be commanded, so that he may walk on water as Jesus does, he at first succeeds.

We should not rush to find the message of this Gospel only in Jesus’s power contrasted with Peter’s wavering faith. Peter showed both faith and lack of faith, and we are no different. We flit between the worlds of grace and condemnation, faith and frailty. The very fact that — even for a few moments — Peter’s feet found purchase on the restless waves is “filled with messages” of hope, of faith in what we one day shall become.

God has many messengers, many ways of bringing us “good news”. Paul is thinking of preachers and apostles like himself, travelling from place to place and telling the story of the resurrection, and all that flows from it. We can probably think of clergy and other ministers who have done the same for us, bringing us to faith, encouraging us to persist in it, and calling us back when we strayed.

But being God’s “swift and beautiful” messenger starts long before this. It comes first in the wordless language of a loving look, a smiling delight on the faces of those who tend us in our infancy. It comes in the prayers that we hear spoken over us with anxious care, and which we naturally learn to imitate. It comes in all who show us by example (not just by teaching) what true love and faith look like, and who make us want to be like them. Each good person of faith is, in their own way, God’s synecdoche.

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